Sunday 21 July 2019

Philomena's prayer for a lost son

The mother whose search for her child after a forced adoption inspired the hit film talks to Barry Egan

IT still seems like yesterday to Philomena Lee. And the tears fall down her face today as she remembers that day – It was Christmas week 1955, at an institution for unwed mothers in a convent in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, when Philomena's baby was taken from her. She never saw three-and-a-half-year-old Anthony again.

Philomena had signed documents for his adoption in the summer of that year.

"I didn't know what I was doing," she says now.

The last glimpse she saw of Anthony was from an upstairs window of the home as she saw him being driven away. There were no goodbyes. Only the agony that stayed with Philomena – and Anthony – from that moment on.

Her eyes full of tears, she shouted out his name, but he didn't hear her. Philomena says now that she can remember his little face looking back in the car, doubtless wondering where his mother was and what was being done to him.

What was being done to poor Anthony was a forced adoption to a family in America – like thousands of other children during that particularly dark time in Irish history. Philomena says that that image of little Anthony looking back through the departing car window haunted her for the rest of her life. "I will always carry that picture in my head," she says 58 years later. "I will remember that to my dying day.

Philomena Lee and her daughter Jane Libberton at the graveside at Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea.
Philomena Lee and her daughter Jane Libberton at the graveside at Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea.

"My mother died at the age of six," she says settling down in a chair in the Merrion Hotel to tell her story.

"I was put into a convent school, my two sisters and myself. My dad kept the three brothers at home. When I left at 18 I lived with my aunt. One night she took me to a carnival on the Ennis Road in Limerick. My aunt went off with a friend. Then Anthony's father came up to me. We made love. In the convent school you were never told a thing about the facts of life. I didn't know what I'd done."

A few months later, her aunt noticed Philomena's belly and asked her was she pregnant: "'What's pregnant?' I replied. She then asked me had I been with a man. I told her at the carnival. I told her I had arranged to meet him next week, but she wouldn't allow it. Then she took me to the doctor who verified I was pregnant. They got me into this home in Roscrea. My aunt brought me there. I never saw her again."

Treated as an outcast for 'getting herself pregnant out of wedlock' in 1950s Ireland, Philomena was sent to the nuns in Tipperary along with other 'delinquent', 'fallen' women of the era. She brought Anthony into the world on July 5, 1952, by breech birth without painkillers of any description. The nuns told young Philomena that her pain was her penance.

For the next 50 years after her son was taken from her, Philomena searched for Anthony. The nuns in Roscrea would not give her any information. At the same time as Philomena was searching for her lost son, Anthony – who had been renamed Michael Hess and was by now working as a top legal aide for US President George Bush – was also looking for his lost mother.

Perhaps the cruellest thing the nuns did was telling him that Philomena had abandoned him when he was two weeks old.

Philomena says now: "They should have told him the truth – that I was with him for three-and-a-half years working in the laundry."

Anthony made two trips back to Ireland from America to find his mother. During the last one, he requested that his ashes be buried at the convent, so that his mother might finally find him one day.

"Michael Hess, a man of two nations and many talents," reads the inscription on his gravestone in Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, the exact spot where his story began.

Years later, one of the nuns told Philomena the truth about Anthony but by then he was dead. He died of complications from AIDS, at the age of 43, on August 15, 1995, in Washington, DC, where he made a big name for himself as a political attorney.

Irish Independent

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